The Deadliest Crash in Racing History Involved a Grandstand Collision, Flying Debris, and 84 Deaths

Auto racing can be a deadly sport. Every time a driver races, the risk of a crash is high and possibly fatal. Thankfully as technology has advanced in recent decades, so has the safety of race cars. Additional safety features and protocols of the racing leagues make the sport less dangerous for the drivers, staff, and spectators. Unfortunately, modern safety equipment and protocols were too late for the 84 people who died in the deadliest crash in racing history.

A tragedy at Le Mans in 1955

Wreckage at Le Mans in 1955
Pierre Levegh’s Mercedes burns off the Le Mans track | Bettmann via Getty Images

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The 24 Hours of Le Mans is one of the most famous races in open-wheel racing; it was also the setting for the deadliest crash in the history of auto racing. Road and Track and BT detail the accident that happened at the event on June 11, 1955. A few hours into the daylong race, a chain reaction crash sent the No. 20 Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR barreling into the crowd gathered along the track to watch the race.

The driver, Pierre Levegh, was killed instantly after being thrown from the vehicle when it went airborne. Parts of the disintegrating car’s body and drivetrain went into the crowd, crushing and decapitating several spectators. The car’s fuel tank exploded, setting the vehicle on fire with the wreckage burning for several hours. In all, the crash killed more than 80 spectators, injuring 120 others.

How the disaster happened

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A virtual “perfect storm” led to the crash that killed dozens of racing fans. Mike Hawthorn had just passed fellow driver Lance Macklin when he noticed his crew signaling to make a pit stop. He hit the brake hard to make it into the pit entrance. Macklin had to swerve to avoid hitting Hawthorn, and Macklin drove his vehicle into the path of Levegh, who was traveling at nearly 150 miles per hour.

The two cars collided, with Macklin’s acting as a ramp that sent Levegh’s Mercedes into the air into the crowd. Macklin’s car went toward the burning Mercedes, striking a spectator. After the severe crash happened, race officials let the race continue, partially to keep departing spectators from impeding the arrival of the numerous ambulances that were needed to treat the injured.

The aftermath of the tragedy

The reaction to the deadly crash was far-reaching, with Mercedes withdrawing from motorsports, and not returning to the sport until 1987; other car companies followed suit. Switzerland banned auto racing, while other European countries quickly improved the safety of their tracks.

Officials at Le Mans made safety improvements of their own, including rearranging the grandstand and pit areas. They also installed an important piece of safety equipment, which was in place for the 1956 race, a new signaling pit. With that new equipment, all signaling was done from the pits rather than the grandstand, with the intention of giving drivers more notice when their crews want them to take a pit stop.

More changes at Le Mans

In the decades since the 1955 race, Le Mans continually made changes to try to rein in speeds and to protect both drivers and spectators. The changes seem to be working. Drivers died in three of the six Le Mans races leading up to the 1955 catastrophe. But only three drivers total had died in the 24-hour race in the 35 years of competition leading up to 2015.

While tragic, the major crash in 1955 had a lasting impact on the sport for the better, with improved safety measures potentially saving the lives of many drivers and fans at Le Mans and other tracks around the world.